When Ames Sheldon’s second novel hit the shelves on Aug. 27, it felt like welcoming a child into the world, the author said.
“It was like a baby, it was a 13-year-long pregnancy,” Sheldon joked from her Eden Prairie home. “To finally be able to put it out there, and share it, and get people’s reactions, is wonderful.”
“Don’t Put the Boats Away” is Sheldon’s follow-up to her first novel, “Eleanor’s Wars,” which won her the Benjamin Franklin Gold Award for Best New Voice in Fiction in 2016. Both are historical novels and follow a family that is dramatically changed by both World Wars. The family’s women take center stage in a time when they were expected to be docile housewives. In “Don’t Put the Boats Away,” the main character, Harriet, attends college and graduate school and strives, against societal pressures, to become a chemist.
“She’s a woman who’s swimming against the tide of her time,” Sheldon said. “Women were not supposed to have careers, they were supposed to stay home and find all of their satisfaction there.”
Sheldon’s interest in women’s history began early in her career when she was tasked with writing and editing a review of women’s history. She began by asking local historical societies to look through their collections and seek out letters and writings by women that may have been overlooked in earlier eras. The project took her four years and sparked a lifelong passion for telling women’s stories.
“By the end, I had totally fallen in love with women’s history,” Sheldon said. “I really enjoy walking in to the past and trying to describe real, or credible, people.”
While researching primary documents at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, she stumbled upon one of her own ancestors, Blanche Ames. She learned that her great aunt had founded the Birth Control League of Massachusetts, drew suffragette cartoons and was an avid advocate for women’s rights. The discovery was a turning point for Sheldon as an author.
“She’s kind of a muse for me,” she explained. “Finding out about her stuff was what really got me going.”
Blanche inspired Sheldon’s first unpublished novel about a birth control league at the turn of the century. The idea for “Eleanor’s Wars” and “Don’t Put the Boats Away” came to her “in a flash” during a walk in northern Minnesota, she said. As she develops a novel, she crafts a biography and narrative of characters’ lives.
“Most importantly, I think about what they really want,” Sheldon said. “And then I think about how to frustrate that purpose.”
Her first novel ends with a tragedy, and the second one picks up in the immediate aftermath as the reeling family copes with their loss. In earlier drafts, she avoided placing her characters in difficult situations until an editor reminded her that misfortune is what makes a story interesting.
“You need conflict. You need problems,” Sheldon said.
While she may create the individual characters, the world they live in is firmly rooted in fact. A career in nonprofit fundraising frequently brought Sheldon into contact with a treasure trove of primary documents, like those of the Minnesota Historical Society. During lunch breaks, she’d head to the archives and review microfilm to source details like clothing, hobbies and interior design from journals and old editions of Life Magazine.
“Even the advertisements are interesting,” she said. “What’s the tablecloth going to look like in 1947?”
Sheldon works with a writer’s group to edit and review her drafts, but the marketing and publicity fall solely on her shoulders. After a morning of writing, she tours around the state to give talks at events and rotary clubs and drum up interest in the book.
“This is a very consuming — both intellectually and emotionally — process,” she admitted. “I’m not sure that I have another book in me.”
That doesn’t mean she’ll never publish again, though: Sheldon recently revisited her unpublished novel based on her great aunt’s birth control league, and may dive once more into the archives to paint a picture of the past.